Commissioners: County doesn't want Lolo ranch shut, seeks compliance

2013-01-08T06:15:00Z 2014-08-04T19:09:46Z Commissioners: County doesn't want Lolo ranch shut, seeks complianceBy KIM BRIGGEMAN of the Missoulian missoulian.com
January 08, 2013 6:15 am  • 

It’s in nobody’s best interest for a government entity to shut down a business, Missoula County Commissioner Michele Landquist says. But it’s the county’s job to make sure businesses comply with health and safety codes.

Sterling and SuzAnne Miller’s equestrian-based business in Lolo doesn’t, and the county took the Millers to court last week in the latest chapter of a years-long saga involving their Dunrovin Ranch and an enigmatic state law known as subdivision for lease or rent.

“We never wanted it to get to this point, ever,” said Landquist, who’ll serve her second stint as chair of the three-person Missoula County Commission in 2013.

Rather than order all commercial operations on the Millers’ property closed, as the county has sued to do, District Judge Ed McLean on Friday opted to appoint a mediator to see if the two sides can reach an agreement. No date has been announced for that meeting.

*****

Landquist, who lives and raises sheep in Lolo a couple of miles from Dunrovin, said the commissioners have been involved with the Millers’ issues since she took office five years ago.

“We have really bent over backward to try to help them help themselves,” she maintained.

Landquist said she has personally urged the Millers to enter into a compliance agreement that “sets out what you’re going to fix first, second, third and fourth and a timeline for getting those things fixed.”

The commissioners sent their final enforcement letter to the Millers last May outlining a number of safety and health violations that needed to be addressed to avoid legal action. The county attorney’s office filed a complaint in December requesting a preliminary injunction against Dunrovin.

Commissioner Jean Curtiss said she and her colleagues have a formal meeting almost weekly with the county attorney’s office.

“This (litigation) was one of subjects that’s come up off and on,” Curtiss said. “We keep saying, are you sure? Can’t (the Millers) do something? Are they willing? We encouraged them to wait as long as we could, looking for some kind of compromise for beginning steps toward compliance.”

Missoula County has a “logical and legal progression” to establish a commercial operation, Landquist said.

In this case, Montana’s Department of Environmental Quality says an application for a new Certificate of Subdivision Approval through the county health department and DEQ must be preceded by subdivision review. The Millers have filed a COSA application that details how they’ll upgrade their septic system.

But the health department can’t begin processing it until they’ve been through subdivision review, a process they only recently entered into after leading the outcry against the county and state’s interpretation of subdivision for lease or rent.

“I agree it’s a confusing and bad state law,” Landquist said. “It’s written very vaguely, and it’s very difficult to interpret let alone enforce. But it’s state law nonetheless, and we took an oath of office to uphold state and federal laws. Even our own county attorneys remind us and hold us to that oath.”

That said, she added, “There’s a reason why the county says you have to start here and (take) this step and this step. The Millers continue to want to skip and rearrange the steps to suit their needs. From a liability standpoint I think we’d be crazy to not follow that logical progression. Otherwise they could come back and sue us.”

*****

In interviews and in court, the Millers and their attorney Colleen Dowdall vehemently disagree with the county’s tactics. They’re on board to upgrade their septic system, which the health department says is woefully inadequate to handle the 2,000 annual visitors to the ranch.

Since the county drastically reduced the cost of the minor subdivision review last year and made other allowances in the subdivision for lease or rent, they’ve launched that process in the past six weeks as well.

Landquist said if the Millers expanded their septic system but were later denied their subdivision application, “they could sue us and say, ‘We spent all this money upgrading our septic system and what good is it?’ ”

The commissioners and James McCubbin, the deputy county attorney prosecuting the case, say they couldn’t afford to wait any longer to file to halt operations at Dunrovin without risking sanitation problems or a lawsuit faulting them for failing to uphold the county’s own regulations.

Judge McLean took it all into account before asking the opposing sides to try to reach a settlement agreement.

“If it can be done, then fine, let’s try and get it done,” he told the Millers’ attorney, Colleen Dowdall, on Friday. “If it can’t be done then the City-County Health Department or the (Office of Planning and Grants) want to enjoin your clients from doing something that might be very detrimental to the environment out in Lolo. With all due respect, that’s why we have these people.”

Reporter Kim Briggeman can be reached at 523-5266 or at kbriggeman@missoulian.com.

Copyright 2015 missoulian.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

(6) Comments

  1. pudu
    Report Abuse
    pudu - January 09, 2013 5:42 pm
    The county commissioners could resolve this if they wanted to as it is clear that Dunrovin Ranch wants to put in the new septic system that they applied to do long ago. McCubbin insists that before they can get a permit to upgrade their septic they have to under go review as a subdivision even though they aren't subdividing anything...they are just trying to run a business that is good for Missoula County. Based on first hand experience, going through subdivision review is a major undertaking and there are endless obstacles that the McCubbin and the County can create to keep anyone from being successful. One of the huge ones, until just this summer, was that the application fee was $5,000. Why would anyone spend many 10s of thousands of dollars doing the subdivision paperwork, and then pay a $5,000 review fee just to have the county say "no" at the end because of some little detail that isn't under the control. The Commissioners need to get legal advice from someone who knows how to compromise and find solutions instead of using taxpayer money to crush the citizens of this county who are just trying to run a business. If the commissioners support McCubbins "just say no" approach, then they should be voted out of office.
  2. Greenland
    Report Abuse
    Greenland - January 08, 2013 5:41 pm
    It is unusual for the District Court to issue sanctions in the form of attorney fees against Missoula County, but I understand that the County richly earned a sanction on a recent case on appeal to the Montana Supreme Court; costing Missoula County the entirety of the attorney fees as well as the sanctions in that case. Sanctions are highly unusual in any case, and generally involves violating a specific court rule, order, or engaging in unethical conduct.

    According to the publicly available Brief on the matter, "The County appeals from an Order where its attorney was sanctioned for improper litigation tactics. Fees were increased due to the County's tactics of using a claim of a conflict of interest in order to remove from Braachs their counsel of record."

    http://applicationengine.mt.gov/getContent?vsId={2DF3BDED-6AC3-4FA0-BE3C-261C79DB7051}&impersonate=true&objectStoreName=PROD%20OBJECT%20STORE&objectType=document
  3. Drummer
    Report Abuse
    Drummer - January 08, 2013 10:04 am
    James McCubbins is definitely the problem, here. He is leading the charge for all the radical environmentalists, which have stunted our economic growth here in Mt.. The 3 Commissioners have forgotten who they work for, and their oath to the Constitution (both State & Federal). All of these people in power positions are using our tax dollars to oppress us and litigate us into poverty. The Commissioners have a habit of "cherry picking" whom they wish to support and whom they wish to persecute. Take for example the Triple C Ranch in the Swan. It cuts through a Wildlife Corridor of Grizzlies, Elk, Deer,exotic wildlife, etc. yet they granted this out of state owner permission to build. Yet local ranchers and agriculture people are harassed and over-regulated in a form of victimization which includes the "taking" of land. This is "silent violence," and all property owners need to be involved, as the whole issue is a complete violation of private property rights. Even if you own a small lot.....you may be the next target!
  4. dave ajou
    Report Abuse
    dave ajou - January 08, 2013 7:31 am
    Claiming that there is some imminent danger from sanitation problems is disingenuous at best. When the same health department and commissioners allow "camping" off the Kim Williams trail, or under the Reserve Street bridge they are blatantly ignoring a real, and significant, health threat. Immediate pollution and contamination of ground and water supplies is a constant. Good luck with that angle, but nobody in their right mind is going to give any credence to these officials when they choose to ignore violations on a wholesale scale, but then are righteously adamant over a hypothetical, and probably nonexistant hazard. What a bunch of phonies.
  5. It's Just My Opinion
    Report Abuse
    It's Just My Opinion - January 08, 2013 6:47 am
    Look no further than the name James McCubbins. Everywhere he goes, frivolous lawsuits arise over re-interpretations of rules. He takes any gray area in law and goes after developers to try to make a name for himself. He is the root of the problem. While the commissioners may want to help this situation, the only way they will help all Missoulians would be to fire Mr. McCubbins.
  6. Sukey
    Report Abuse
    Sukey - January 08, 2013 2:32 am
    Whoa. 2000 annual visitors a year? That's like a five person family. Do they even have a septic tank and leach field? It doesn't take much to install a septic tank for a 3 or 4 bedroom house, which is about the family size of 2000 visits a year. Were this a restaurant, it would have been out of business a long time ago with only about 5 or 6 people a day stopping by. Why is there such media attention and government agency time over a relatively minor mom and pop business?
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